I’ve been sticking to quite a low carbohydrate diet while enjoying this enforced running hiatus and awaiting my MRI results. Good news is, rather than gaining weight after going from 50+ miles a week running to zero, I’ve actually lost a few pounds over the past month and a half, while putting on some muscle mass by way of weight training. The most surprising aspect of this for me has been, however, an amazing increase in steady mental focus, sharpness and creativity in the past few weeks. It’s like I got a bonus 15 IQ points that I can turn on whenever I want, in meetings, while writing, brainstorming, etc. This was not an effect I was expecting or looking for, and has been pronounced enough for me to be sure it’s not my imagination.
I was curious as to why this might be the case. If you Google around you can find plenty of information about low-carb diets and brain function. For example, when you first embark on a low-carb diet you’re likely to endure the keto-flu — a few days where you’re body isn’t getting the sugar/carbohydrate it’s used to burning, but hasn’t adapted to burning fat for fuel instead. You feel foggy-headed, or worse. Some people even feel as though they have the actual flu. This passes in a few days.
Following that transition, your body has been converted into a fat-burning machine. At this point, why would you get mentally sharper?
According to this explanation on the Scientific American blog, it’s because once you’re in ketosis, your brain actually gets more energy delivered to it than it did before.
“BHB (a major ketone) may be an even more efficient fuel than glucose, providing more energy per unit oxygen used. A ketogenic diet also increases the number of mitochondria, so called ‘energy factories’ in brain cells. “
I won’t break down the whole post, but recommend you check it out. The comment thread is pretty interesting as well.
Elsewhere, Dr. John Briffa blogs about a study of ketogenic diets and brain function, and concluded “those eating the ketogenic diet, compared to the other group, saw significant improvement in their ‘verbal memory’ (memory of words and other abstractions involving language). Also, generally speaking, the higher their ketone levels, the better their verbal memory tended to be. The suggestion here is that ketones provide ready fuel for the brain, and may enhance ‘cognitive function’.”
It’s worth noting that while giving me a happy little brain boost, some even more dramatic effects of ketogenic diets relate to the treatment of epilepsy, and maybe Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Check out this piece in the New York Times from one of Wired mag’s contributing editors on how a ketogenic diet helped the treatment of his son’s severe seizures.
For me, I’ll take anything that can give me a cognitive edge. My work – and life in general – requires constant learning, decision making, creative thinking and analysis. Then again, in a modern knowledge economy, that applies to a lot of folks, doesn’t it? I’d be interested in hearing from others who’ve had similar experiences with low-carb diets.
The stories I mentioned above were:
- The Fat-Fueled Brain: Unnatural or Advantageous? by Shelly Xuelai Fan (PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia), Scientific American Mind, Blogs, Oct. 2013
- Epilepsy’s Big Fat Miracle, by Fred Vogelstein, New York Times Magazine, 2010
- Very low carb diets found to be good for the brain, by Dr John Briffa, Dec. 8, 2010